What makes a good client? A firm that's established, has deep pockets, and will be around for a long time, right?

Right. So it's hard to argue—regardless of your personal politics—that the federal government isn't one of the biggest (and best) potential clients for your business. For many, the federal government isn't just a source for political debate or theoretical discourse—it's a significant source of income.

"As you know, federal government is one of the few potential clients that are spending money," says Bill Lennett, the CEO of Government Contract Associates, a government-contract consulting firm based in California. "So as you can imagine, everybody wants to do business with the government."

Working With Government Contract Consultants: Why Work With a Consultant?

Unfortunately, working for the federal government is not always that simple. With an aggressive audit system, many small businesses seek out government contract consultants to aid in the federal procurement process. These consultants assist in registering a small business as a contractor, help it write the proposal, and most of all, assist with the accounting processes that are vital to winning bids. While this guide is meant to give you some insight into what government contract consultants can offer, you should know that there are alternatives, too.

If you're not interested in working with a consultant or you don't have the cash on hand, you can visit a Procurement and Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), which are located throughout the country. The centers help businesses market their services or products to the government, by matching a firm's strengths and offers with procurement opportunities.

The first step to obtaining a federal contract, according to Dean Koppel, the Assistant Director for Policy and Research at the U.S. Small Business Administration, is to consult the local chapter of the Small Business Administrator.  "Any small business that wants to do business with the federal government either as a prime or subcontractor should look at the SBA contracting offices," he says. The office will supply a business with information to get you started, as well as give  more information about current solicitations for contracts.  

Working With Government Contract Consultants: Starting Out

Last year, the federal government purchased nearly $100 billion worth of goods and services from small businesses through prime contracting procurements, according to the Small Business Administration. That's nearly 25 percent of the $400 billion overall federal marketplace. Thousands of small businesses across the country have been winning contracts for years. 

It's especially a great time to be a technology or service company. "The trends [of federal procurement] have been towards services rather than hardware," says Mike Steen, a senior managing consultant at Beason & Nalley, a consulting group in Huntsville, Alabama, that specializes in government contract consulting. "The federal government has really flip-flopped in terms of what they're buying. They're not buying airplanes as much as they're buying services, and IT fits into that very heavily."

Before you hire a consultant, though, to become a federal contractor, you'll need to register your firm in the Central Contractor Registration (CCR) database. While the government contract consultant can assist you in this process, it's easy enough to do on your own. The CCR is a portal that gives businesses a chance to market their goods and services to the federal government.

Then, you must renew your registration every 12 months from the date you initially registered. An invalid registration will diminish your chances to receive contract awards or payments, so it's important to stay up to date.

Working With Government Contract Consultants: Accounting, Costs, Proposals

  • Accounting:

When you're doing business with the federal government you have to submit proposals and invoice the government using adequate accounting practices, says Linnett: "My area of specialty is a knowledge of specific accounting requirements, and helping contractors prepare proposals and make sure their accountings proposals are consistent with those requirements."

Having what the government calls 'adequate accounting' practices is essential. Many small businesses have accounting methods that are outdated or non-existent. This won't fly with the federal government. "A company needs to have an accounting system that's operational," Steen says. "It can't be sitting in a box somewhere on a shelf that'll be implemented if they get the contract." In other words, you have to be able to prove to the government that your accounting practices are consistent with general ledger accounting.

"It becomes very difficult to get government contracts where billing and proposals are based on costs," says Linnett. "So if they can show the government that 'hey our accounting practices are adequate rather than inadequate, that gives them a significant competitive advantage over most companies that don't. That's when they contact somebody like me to say 'Hey, help us make sure that our accounting practices are considered adequate.'"

In general, a consultant will review your practices and recommend certain changes to make sure you get positive feedback from your audit.

  • Costs:

What can you charge to the government? What can't you charge? These are the questions you'll be working with a consultant to determine. The government puts forth certain requirements that distinguish between "allowable" and "unallowable" costs in your proposal. If you try to get reimbursed for unallowable costs, it could cost you the job, or you could face penalty charges or interest.

Categorically, they're called 'cost principles,' says Steen. "Those cost principles take selected elements of cost such as advertising and interest expense, etc., and tells the government contractor which is allowed," Steen says. Essentially, it's a government regulation that defines unallowable costs.

So for example, a consultant will help a business distinguish between direct and indirect costs, remove any unallowable costs, implement processes for compensation and labor charges, and analyze even the small details on a financial statements, like uncompensated overtime.

You're allowed to charge the government both direct and indirect costs, says Linnet, but there are rules to follow. This is where a consultant like Linnnett might be able to give your company a competitive advantage. "My ability is to be able to structure the way they charge indirect costs to be consistent with their pricing strategy," he says. "If they're a sole source and there's not a lot of competition for their services, they may want to maximize the amount of costs. More often, they're in a competitive market and so they want to minimize costs charged to the government but still be consistent with the rules."

  • Proposals:

First, you have to determine the style or the format, says Robert Horejsh, a government contract consultant and owner of Federal Contract Consultants, LLC, which is based in Wisconsin. "Just about every contract officer has a little different style. Sometimes they tell you exactly what they want and you have to follow their outline." Other times, there are no guidelines at all.

The government uses the proposals to filter out a lot of potential contractors, Horejsh notes. "If they get something that doesn't look quite right, they might throw it away. I have heard stories of contract officers throwing away proposals because of an unwritten rule that proposals are not supposed to be stapled."

How to Work with Government Contract Consultants: The value of patience

Government contracting is not going to happen over night, says Jorejsh. "I tell my clients that I'm not sure if it will take three weeks, three months, or three years," he says. But the value of consultant is clear: They are working on your behalf to ensure you have the best opportunity to grab a lucrative federal contract. "A consultant hangs in there and looks at what your chances are of actually getting the contract," he says.